Or perhaps i should say i need to talk about my grandfather.
Grandpa P was a lifelong expat. Although i believe he was a New Zealand citizen, he worked for the British Council. My father was born in Kenya and spent much of his childhood in boarding school in England while his mom and dad circled the globe. That distance took a toll on my dad. I wonder if the lifestyle was hard on my nan too, because in my earliest memories she and Grandpa P had already separated. There are photographs of me visiting them as a toddler in Nigeria, i believe, and i do remember Nan's place in Essex, but my only real memory of Grandpa P is of a holiday in Hong Kong.
I don't know how long we spent in Hong Kong, or when exactly it was, but i suspect it was for a week or two back in 1987. It was the coolest fucking place i had ever been in my life. Up until that point i had grown up in Europe. I might have seen a few public housing blocks and seaside hotels, but there weren't any skyscrapers in Europe, and certainly nothing of the density to prepare me for landing in Hong Kong. It was like being transported into Miami Vice.
But Hong Kong wasn't just about the skyscrapers. It was all the people, the flashing lights, the smells, the tastes, the excitement, the hustle and bustle like nothing i had ever seen before. That trip made a huge impact on me as a child. I remember statues and pagodas and the smell of joss sticks. I remember steep hills and narrow alleys and giant insects and tiny digital watches. I remember flying a kite on top of a mountain and watching kids far more skilled than me engage in battle. I remember spotting junks in the harbor, seeing boats going every which way.
I don't remember much of my grandfather. I think he was always busy with something or other. Maybe he just wasn't one for dealing with kids. I remember his new wife, who was very sweet to us. I remember "the help" - i even remember their names - who took me and my sister out to explore the islands. I have a vague memory of being taken out to eat at some point. I can't remember much more, but no doubt it was a fabulous Cantonese banquet that went over my head at the time, because i do know my grandpa didn't do anything by halves. My dad tells me he was the most generous guy he knew - to a fault, because he neglected his family as a result.
After that holiday we moved to New Zealand, where i spent years bullied and bloodied up for being an immigrant with a funny accent and nerdy hobbies. Then my parents divorced, which was extremely rough on our family. Perhaps i held on to that memory of Hong Kong as one last moment of happiness before a stretch of time that was the most miserable of my childhood. I did see my grandpa again, briefly, but i think there was too much going on with me by that point for it to make an impact.
So i did what i am wont to do - my nerdy hobbies including reading and writing and daydreaming - and fan-ficced my grandfather. Occasionally i got updates via dad - he had another back operation, he moved to Phillipines, he had another stroke, his wife passed away, he has cancer, he is gone. But in my head he remained a globetrotting man of mystery, a friend to all cultures, a life-long immigrant, a gregarious gentleman, a joker, a fixer, a drinker. Who knows if he was any of those things? I guess it doesn't matter. That's what he was to me because i was never privy to anything else.
When he died, dad revealed to me that all the time he had been keeping Grandpa P up-to-date about my goings-on, he had neglected to mention one important thing: that i had changed my sex and was living as a woman. I can imagine the conversations. "Oh yes, he's doing fine. Yes, lives in Australia now. Yes, nice girlfriend, good job, no kids yet." In our family there was a signet ring passed from the first son to the first son to the first son. It should have been mine, but i am a poor first son. I will never have kids, and i don't even have my birth surname any more. Perhaps dad wanted to protect that illusion Grandpa P had of me, just as i had mine of him. Still, i was really upset when i found out. Somehow it felt like it took away what little second-hand relationship i thought i still had.
So all we did have was Hong Kong. That short holiday when i was a bairn. Going back was going to be a pilgrimage for me.
I was prepared for disappointment. Pretty much every other place i have visited from my childhood has changed in ways that busted the memory. But you know what? Seeing Hong Kong again this week did justice to every memory. It's still the most vibrant city i have ever visited. It is fast and dense and chaotic and beautiful. It's fierce and unfriendly and that doesn't really matter because everyone is swept up in it all. And when you find a rare abandoned clearing or rooftop, the rush of peace feels almost sacred.
Of course, it wasn't all roses. As a kid i didn't pay for anything so i didn't really see that side. I can tell you it's hideously expensive. I was in shock when i left my hotel and couldn't find any meals under 100$ (~12€). Happy hour beers started at 50$. The outrageous cost soured me on spending any more time there than absolutely necessary, so i started to check things off my "memory lane" itinerary on that first night. In the search for affordable food i stumbled upon a street market where one vendor hawked plastic toys and robots, just like i remember. I found a crab shack where i sat down on a plastic stool across from some sweaty, topless men in flip-flops. Dinner was two 20$ bottles of Tsingtao and a 40$ plate of water spinach and an 8$ samosa from an Indian place. Then i walked up to the Star ferry terminal and looked over at the Central skyline - much higher now, but as spectacular as it ever was.
The next morning i took the Star ferry over to Central. I remember there being a lot more harbor traffic 30 years ago. I guess there are a half dozen bridges and tunnels now. It was still awesome crossing the harbor in one of those old boats, especially with an epic tropical storm overhead spraying rain onto the deck and crashing thunder all around. Climbing up to the mid-levels was amazing too, just getting lost on funny little mountain staircases and private passageways with water cascading down around my ankles. I remembered it all.
Eventually i made it to the British Council building, which i do not. The current building is new and surrounded by luxury hotels and people in suits. I burst into tears when i got into the lobby. I choked out some explanation to the receptionist, then ordered a cup of tea and cried for an hour. I don't know what i expected to find there. Maybe some photos. Maybe an oldtimer who knew him, who could tell me a story about the good old days. But my grandfather was just one old expat amongst thousands. The only things he left behind are online - some passing diplomatic mentions and a record of his OBE. The current British Council in Hong Kong looks like little more than a buxiban for the new generation who grew up as residents of a Chinese SAR, not a British colony.
Though, i have to say, Hong Kong still feels quite British. They still drive on the wrong side of the road. They still use grotesquely oversized power plugs. They still have double decker buses. It feels provincial in the same way Britain itself does - justifiably proud of past successes but perhaps also a bit too stuffy to slot into place as a small player in a larger region.
After my breakdown i thought the day couldn't get any more emotional. I was wrong.
It was raining too much to try to climb a mountain or take a trip to Lantau, so i decided to wander over to the west side of the island. A whole bunch of old town along the way has been invaded by hipsters, but that was a given. I stopped in at the Lo Pan temple, mainly because Lo Pan is the name of the baddie in Big Trouble In Little China. If you ever wondered how i explore cities, by the way, this is how. I don't look at guidebooks or websites. I just look on the map and see a funny name or geographic feature and then walk there without any information about whether it is actually going to be "interesting" or not. Often it's not, by tourist standards, but the journey is fun. The Lo Pan temple was closed, but i enjoyed the walk.
Back down on the waterfront i found a bar where i sat down for a (fucking expensive) beer after grabbing a cheap bak choi and tofu noodle bowl at a Cantonese hole-in-the-wall. It was an expat bar. I cued up a bunch of gay-ass 80s music on the jukebox. I drank many beers. I started getting chatted up by a random Chinese guy called B. I talked to the bartender. And then the police arrived.
At some point in the evening, someone had found a suicide note from the owner of the bar. Apparently he comes in every night but that night he didn't. Everyone was a regular and they all knew him. It really put a damper on the proceedings. Being in the middle of all that emotion - plus my own memories of friends lost to suicide, plus my emotional breakdown from earlier in the day - just made me want to escape harder. I let B lead me to a new bar where everyone except the bartender was speaking Cantonese. I got drunker, and then had to fend off the attentions of B who had hit the point of drunkenness that he was no longer too shy to tell me he was fascinated by my exotic gender and stature and started getting handsy. It annoys me when people try it on when quite clearly i have something more important to do than get laid and that is drink my beer. He left after he realized i wasn't going to leave with him, but his nonsense had pissed me off so i shut the place down. I took a night bus back across the harbor and then had to walk from the ass-end of Kowloon to my hotel, past a bunch of guys trying to sell me shit at some ungodly hour of the morning on a weeknight. I ignored them and bought a beer for the road instead. Hong Kong, where the hustling never stops, even if the bars do. I collapsed in my hotel room and woke up with the mother of all hangovers.
Because that's how i wanted to face the Chinese border control. Dear God, was that a miserable morning. The highlight was pork buns. Many, many pork buns. But i will write about Shenzhen later. This was my Hong Kong story.
RIP, grandpa, you never knew me, we barely met, but you were a fantasy role model in my mind. My childhood trip to see you stuck with me for 3 decades. Bye bye, Hong Kong, you crazy capitalist colony that still stretches and glitters and feels like the most awesome city in the world. I'll be back, though i can't afford to stay long. Perhaps that's the best way, racing fast enough the wind can dry my tears.